Editors note: this discussion features spoilers for the movie Snitch. Read at your own discretion.
When you sit down to watch a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson action vehicle like Snitch, you generally expect the film’s crosshairs to be sighted on fictional bad guys, not the real world United States government. But as it turns out, Snitch’s action-film ready “How far would you go to save your son?” conceit is less a narrative gimmick than it is a point of departure to dramatize a social issue. The film isn’t ultimately propelled by the urge to flip semi-trailers but by the desire to criticize the problematic mandatory minimum sentencing laws the government wields to fight the war on drugs.
Snitch’s social conscience is the offspring of the activist mandates of Participant Media and the same-named episode of PBS’s Frontline. The investigative report shed condemning light on how some of the United States anti-drug tactics – mandatory minimum sentencing and conspiracy charges – breed an environment where big fish get lighter sentences by informing on smaller (or non) fish. Snitching may be the documentary’s hook, but its core criticism is how in the government’s singular mission to win against drugs, it will unjustly, indiscriminately and indifferently ruin people’s lives to achieve its goals. As one interviewee put it: “It’s no longer about protecting people who are innocent. Now it’s part of the casualties of the drug war.”
The Frontline episode is full of incriminating examples. Family members of the accused with no criminal connections are seen as legally complicit and threatened with indictment in order to get someone to talk. People are arrested and condemned based on no other evidence than the questionable verbal testimony of someone the government has cornered and left with few options. Minor offenses are slapped with a probation-less ten year sentence. Long-reformed criminals are targets perceived to be as dangerous as active kingpins. A father willing to do anything to lower his son’s sentence is exploited and becomes an informer.
James Settembrino, the inspiration for Dwayne Johnson’s character.
The last example is the more direct point of inspiration for Snitch. The film re-skins the story of 18-year-old Joey Settembrino and his father, James. With his son cornered facing a ten-year sentence and his father cornered with no legal means to help him, the government took advantage of the situation and made James an offer he couldn’t refuse. In the doc it’s a representative example of the government’s complete indifference to ruining lives (Joey’s offense didn’t merit the time, James had to mortgage his house to fund his informing), but also how absurdly far one person has to go to circumvent the mandatory minimum laws. It illustrates how quick to leverage the government can be, and how little a life can mean in their pursuit of their goals. Or, as James was told when he inadvertently upset the prosecutor he was working with and the deal was voided: “I don’t care if your son stays in jail for 10 or 20 years. It makes no difference to me.”
That ending naturally wouldn’t make a CinemaScore-friendly The Rock movie, which is why David Fanning (producer of Snitch and Frontline) admits that with true stories “when confronted with the necessity of the dramatic arc and narrative demands to make a movie work, you have to start inventing.” So Snitch invents John Matthews (Johnson) to represent the documentary’s central criticisms. Which is exactly where it undoes them. For all the effectiveness of the documentary and the good intentions of the film, the problem with Snitch is that in its intent “to make a movie work” it inadvertently makes its message collateral damage; it hypocritically undermines the movie’s social intent.
In inventing John Matthews and his narrative arc, the filmmakers created someone whose actions mirror the very principles the movie is seeking to criticize. He inherits the same disregard the government has for the lives these laws affect and the same wartime attitudes which are summarized succinctly by defense attorney Patrick Hallinan in the Frontline documentary. “You know, when you have a war,” he says, “there’s only one point in a war, and that’s to win. So whatever impedes victory, you throw out and get out of the way.” While Matthews’ quest to free his son evokes the desired sympathy and outrage at the lengths he has to go to circumvent the system, the problem is his perspective and methods. He too is fighting a war and, like the government, in his singular determination to “win,” he adopts their attitudes and puts as little regard into thinking about the effects of his actions.
It starts almost immediately after he agrees to cooperate. Despite the non-discrimination Matthews displays in his willingness to hire ex-convicts for his successful business, it’s condemning that when he needs to work for the government he regresses to thinking like them – once a drug dealer, always a drug dealer. Exploiting his access to the privacy of his employees’ lives (how Patriot Act), he digs through their records to find someone who is no longer a criminal reformed, in his eye, but only a criminal with active contacts to be used. Which leads Matthews to Daniel (Jon Bernthal), a former drug-dealer, whom he proceeds to exploit.
Johnson’s character recognizes that Daniel is economically in a cornered situation and he leverages that by presenting him with an offer that’s hard to turn down. Sound familiar? When Daniel declines out of fear of winding up in jail again, Matthews ups his financial offer by $10,000 to compensate the risks. It’s evocative of the deals the government will make to get drug dealers to inform. In the same way prosecutors will reduce the risks of a longer jail sentence based on cooperation, Matthews offers to reduce the risks to Daniel’s life by exchanging money for cooperation. John has a war to win and Daniel is just someone to use to help make that happen – no regard for his life required.
That only becomes increasingly clear as Matthews remains oblivious to Daniel’s conflicted (and forced) re-entry into the drug world, as well as the ramifications it has on his family – the risk of tearing it apart and endangering their lives. Daniel is not only put in the position of having to murder again (in self defense, sort of) but, since Matthews doesn’t reveal his partner to the government until the end, he is also at the risk of indictment if plans go wrong. Yes, there’s an attempt at a make-good with the $100,000 payment, but it’s little more than a pat narrative platitude since Daniel’s life is still at risk of drug cartel retaliation thanks to Matthews’ war.
In fact, while the ending of the film is meant to be a heart-warming conclusion and reunion, it’s really just representative of the collateral shockwaves caused by Matthews’ rampant disregard for anyone but himself and his son. Yes, Daniel and his family have to disappear, but Matthews’ family also has to disappear into the Witness Protection Program. Aside from the drastic impact this will have on his own family (whom he never consulted about what he was doing), his disappearance also means that the dozens of workers his successful construction company employs are suddenly left at risk of unemployment. In his singular quest to win his individual war, he’s compromised dozens of innocent lives – in the same way the government does.
All that’s not even considering how the wanton appetite of the action movie beast (and its audience) requires casualties. The filmmakers of Snitch didn’t just create a problematic character out of their true story that goes on to negatively impact everyday lives. They placed that true story into the mechanics of an action film – a genre that by its very nature requires the kind of destruction that can leave innocent civilian collateral in the wake of a hero’s crusade. Matthews’ reckless driving during a junkyard shootout escape and in a climactic highway chase (to say nothing of his blind shotgun shooting) does just that – endanger those around with him without thinking twice. Which – let’s face it – is rarely done in an action movie, because this is exactly what an audience wants from a movie starring The Rock.
There’s no doubt Snitch’s ambitions are admirable, and superficially it does succeed in some ways to present in a human way the toll the mandatory minimum sentence takes on everyday Americans. But while the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of their intended message, in constructing John Matthews and an action film around it they did lose sight of how that narrative might affect their message. Sundance Now columnist Anthony Kaufman addresses that point in his consideration of whether Snitch’s upgrading a real story to a fake one risks its “goodwill [being] lost in the film’s hail of gunfire.” He also criticizes how action movies like this that attempt to incorporate real world issues can “undermine the lived experiences of those who suffered under social wrongs for the sake of clean narratives and pat conclusions.”
The Rock’s latest is no exception. There are many failed attempts at melding entertainment with social message or films trying to live up to their inspiring subject matter. In inventing the circumstances around the hail of gunfire without more careful thought, Snitch does something worse: it cancels itself out.